LIFE AFTER THE SICHUAN EARTHQUAKE IN 2008: REMARRIAGE AND BABIES

LIFE AFTER THE SICHUAN EARTHQUAKE IN 2008

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In some places in earthquake-hit Sichuan unemployment is as high as 80 percent. In other places people have little difficulty finding work, much of it construction and rebuilding jobs. In most cases people working very hard to earn as much money as they can and saving as much as they can.

Some tried peddling and had a hard go. One woman who sold dried bean powder in the “Happy Family Garden” refugee camp in Djiangyan told AFP, “Yesterday I sold 2 yuan [25 cents} of bean powder. That isn’t enough to feed a family with four mouths.”

Many people left the Sichuan area. Some joined the tide of migrant workers in China’s big cities. Others struck out for the frontiers of Tibet and Xinjiang to open small businesses. Some men left to find work while their wives and children remained in the refugee camps. One man who left Beichuan for Beijing told the Washington Post, “We don’t want to go back to Beichuan. There are still lots of refugees there.”

Sometimes the earthquake-zone migrants were not so warmly welcomed. One 39-year-old survivor from Beichuan moved to Beijing and opened up a restaurant there. Fifteen days after she opened, someone spray-painted “Sichuan People: Go back to the disaster” on the restaurant’s metal security gate.

The one year anniversary of the earthquake was marked in May 2009 with Chinese leaders placing flowers at memorials and survivors burning paper money for the spirits of departed loved ones. Chinese President Hu Jintao promised more support for rebuilding efforts and pledged to do more for disaster prevention with the aim of a “more harmonious relationship between man and nature.” An especially moving scene occurred at a destroyed middle school in Beichuan where mourners observers a moment of silence at the time the earthquake struck and paid their respects to the 1,000 students and staff who died at the school.

Children and the Sichuan Earthquake in 2008

Tens of thousands of Chinese families offered to take in orphans but most orphans found homes with relatives. Only 88 orphans were put up for adoption. As of September 2008, only two of 88 orphans eligible for adoption had found new homes.

University entrance exams for more than 120,000 high school students were delayed. Most students take the exams in June. In earthquake-hit areas they took them in July. According to Xinhua nearly 80 percent of the students attended “the most important exam in their lives in makeshift houses.” An additional two percent more places than usual were reserved for students from earthquake-stricken areas.

Thousands of parents who lost children lost their only child. A 35-year-old welder told the Los Angeles Times, “We were in bad way after the earthquake. My wife couldn’t stop crying.” The economic side if the tragedy was also tough. One woman who lost her 18-year-old daughter said, “We spent all our money on our child, The money is gone. The child is gone.”

Earthquake Zone Baby Boom After the Sichuan Earthquake 2008

Beijing relaxed its one child policy with parents who lost a child in the earthquake. It gave free medical check-up to women who lost children in the quake and allowed them to stop using birth control that they were obliged to use before. Some parents responded to offer and quickly had more children. Other were so overwhelmed with surviving and eking out a living and burdened by grief and found it impossible to consider having more children.

One woman who lost her 16-year-old son told the Yomiuri Shimbun, “I’m looking forward to being a mother again, but I can’t sleep well as I’m worried about whether I’ll be able to provide for my child as I don’t have a house, land or money.” Other felt bad about the idea of replacing lots loved ones or felt they were too old to have another child.

The government paid for fertility counseling and operations to reverse vasectomies and tubal ligations. It even paid for a group wedding of 40 survivors who lost spouses and helped them start new families. The wedding was held in April in 2009 and each couple was allowed to invite eight friends to the wedding and given a free trip to Hainan island for a honeymoon.

Ten months after the earthquake there was a baby boom in the earthquake-stricken area. A nurse at a maternity hospital told the Los Angeles Times, “Chinese people are very practical. The wife of the 35-year-old welder mentioned above gave birth to a boy 10 months and 25 days after the earthquake. She told the Los Angeles Times, “I can’t say I feel good about this pregnancy. By the time the baby is grown up, we will be old. We won’t be able to retire until then.”

Remarriages Arranged After the Sichuan Earthquake

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Xue Ying, a 25-year-old former clothing vendor, and Yang Chun, a 37-year-old shuttle-bus driver, are among those were married in the autumn of 2009 in arranged remarriage for victims of the Sichuan earthquake. Brook Larmer wrote in the New York Times magazine, “Yang and Xue have been striving, in their own separate ways, to escape the shadow of May 12, 2008...In barely 80 seconds, their worlds were obliterated. Yang’s wife, a shopkeeper, was...entombed in the rubble of their hometown, Beichuan. Their only child, a 7-year-old boy, was crushed when the Qushan Primary School, like thousands of other school buildings across the region, collapsed like an accordion. A few hundred yards away, Xue scrambled out of her home seconds before it crumbled only to discover that her fiancé had been buried by a landslide.[Source: Brook Larmer, New York Times, May 3, 2010]

“Coaxing earthquake survivors into remarriage has become a community obligation. Unlikely volunteers have joined in the matchmaking efforts, from former in-laws to the leaders of the local Communist work units to which every family in this part of rural Sichuan is still assigned. Behind them is the Chinese government. The state, which has long seen fit to intervene in the most private aspects of people’s lives, including reproductive rights, has avidly promoted---and in some cases even arranged---what it dryly calls restructured families.” [Ibid]

“By the end of 2008, less than eight months after the earthquake, 614 survivors from Beichuan alone had already remarried, according to Wang Hongfa, a local civil-affairs official. (The number across Sichuan’s earthquake zone, though not made public, is estimated to be well into the thousands.) That so many earthquake survivors have already remarried is not surprising in itself; but in many cases, these are widows marrying widowers, two survivors striving to get back onto solid ground.” [Ibid]

Group Wedding After the Sichuan Earthquake

In April 2009, Brook Larmer wrote in the New York Times magazine, “twenty couples in brightly colored ethnic costumes sang love ballads on the streets of a Disneyfied village, their choreographed moves followed by a phalanx of television cameras. The event resembled the production of a Chinese soap opera, but it was actually a government-sponsored mass wedding of earthquake widows and widowers, orchestrated to show, as the master of ceremonies---a local Communist Party chief named Chen Xingchun---put it, the epitome of a beautiful new Beichuan.” [Source: Brook Larmer, New York Times, May 3, 2010]

“Walking arm in arm, the newlyweds promenaded past stone bridges, fortresses and watchtowers, all rebuilt to look like an ancient village of the Qiang ethnic minority. None of the men and women lived there; the reconstructed stone village, Jina, is designed to be a tourist site. But as the cameras rolled, the couples---some of whom met for the first time just a few weeks before---performed ancient Qiang wedding rituals: dancing to traditional music, planting saplings to symbolize happiness and, as the celebration ended, throwing corn and millet over the crowd for good fortune. [Ibid]

The group wedding made for heartwarming television. Staged less than three weeks before the quake’s first anniversary, it also served as a signal for survivors to leave the tragedy behind and move on, as Chen said, in courageous pursuit of a happy, new start. Just as crucially, the event showcased the government’s efforts to rebuild Sichuan at every level, from the reconstruction of towns and the creation of a new tourism industry to the restructuring of families. To pull off the mass wedding, local officials acted as matchmakers and motivational coaches. It’s not easy for many of these people to decide to marry again, Jing Dazhong, the Beichuan mayor, told reporters. So we helped some of them find the right person and provided psychological consultation to ease their uncertainties.” [Ibid]

“The wedding was held under Chinese flags. “By holding its earthquake wedding under China’s five-star banner, the government turned the act of moving on and remarrying into a patriotic duty. Remarriage can bring tangible benefits not just to the individuals but also to the state. In impoverished rural Sichuan, a family with two adults has a better chance at surviving without government aid than a single parent. The burden on reconstruction is also reduced from two homes to one.” [Ibid]

“When the wedding ceremony in Jina ended, an official caravan whisked the 20 couples to the airport. The Beichuan government was sending them on an all-expense-paid honeymoon to a beach resort on Hainan Island in southern China. It was only a two-day trip, but that was enough time for Chinese television crews to frame the final shot. The newlyweds seemed tentative at first. But soon they were strolling down the beach, hand in hand, sharing on camera their dreams about the future. It was, in television terms, a perfect wrap.” [Ibid]

Dating After the Sichuan Earthquake

In the months that followed the Sichuan earthquake, Larmer wrote of Xue and Yang the couple described above, “Xue lived alone in a government-issue tent outside a local stadium, eating crackers and instant noodles, unable to sleep without seeing images of corpses appearing with her fiancé’s face. Yang returned to his parents’ home in Piankou and retreated into a suicidal stupor. He lost more than 30 pounds. He slept very little. As soon as he closed his eyes, he would see his wife and son staggering among the ruins, waiting for him to come save them. Yang spoke to nobody about the tragedy. I couldn’t dump all this on my parents or in-laws, he said. They had suffered great losses, too. So I kept it all inside, wondering why life should be lived anymore.” [Source: Brook Larmer, New York Times, May 3, 2010]

“The only way to pull Yang back from the brink, his family decided, was for him to remarry as quickly as possible. My parents, my older sister, my younger sister: they all pressured me to move on, Yang recalled. My wife’s older brother recruited my friends to look for a new wife for me. Even my mother-in-law, one month after the earthquake, urged me to get married again. Yang also got a call from the Communist Party’s local propaganda department. The deputy director of the department, a 33-year-old man named Feng Xiang, lost his young son in the same Qushan Primary School collapse in which Yang’s son died, and subsequently committed suicide. Feng’s colleagues encouraged Yang to start a new life---and offered to do anything they could to help.” [Ibid]

“The notion of remarrying, however, seemed obscene to Yang, he said; it would be a betrayal of his wife and son. Yang didn’t want to reconnect with people; he wanted to run away. So when a favorite aunt in faraway Hebei Province sent for him, Yang left Sichuan behind. Gradually, with a combination of home cooking and herbal medicine, his aunt gave him back a life.” [Ibid]

“Yang and Xue first met in early 2009, when a mutual friend persuaded them to join a group lunch during the Chinese lantern festival...Neither wanted to start a new relationship, and the meeting didn’t change their minds. My friend said he was an honest, down-to-earth man, Xue says. But I didn’t want to consider it at all. Yang, who is in his mid-30s, dismissed the 24-year-old Xue as just a kid.” [Ibid]

“When Yang and Xue met a second time---at a picnic in the park arranged by their mutual friend---there still were no romantic sparks. But the conversation was pleasant enough. Like Xue’s fiancé, Yang was a gentle, soft-spoken driver in his mid-30s. And though Xue was a decade younger than Yang’s wife, she, too, was easygoing and mature. Still, they were reluctant. Would a new relationship dishonor the dead? Were they both too broken to build anything new? [Ibid]

Deciding to Get Married After the Sichuan Earthquake

“A couple of weeks later, Yang invited Xue to lunch and showed up in the Mitsubishi with his sister and brother-in-law in tow. This was to be a family decision. For me, the pressure to get remarried was huge, Yang says. That’s the only reason I considered it. From that day on, the two survivors spent their nights together in the shelter, comforting each other through the darkest hours. They rarely talked about the hideous images that occasionally flooded their minds. It was enough that they had both gone through a similar experience. She suffered a lot, too, Yang says, so I think she understands me.” [Source: Brook Larmer, New York Times, May 3, 2010]

“The wedding was set for summer. But Yang still had one loose end to tie up. A few weeks before the marriage, with the help of a computer-savvy cousin, he created Web sites for his wife and son. The sites were simple, each with a snapshot and a brief description that reads less like an epitaph than a yearbook entry. For his wife, he wrote: Luo Xuemei, female, born May 8, 1973. . . . able to do things very seriously and take charge of the family! For his son: Zhang Ruiming, male, born Sept. 20, 2000. . . . smart, lovely, and lively!”

“More than a hundred guests showed up for the all-day wedding celebration at a local hotel. They were mostly Xue’s friends, fellow earthquake survivors from Beichuan who were still living in temporary shelters, eager to trade their instant noodles for a feast of fish, shrimp and chicken. Heavy rains prevented many of Yang’s friends and family from coming across the mountains from Piankou. But at his family’s table there sat four new friends from the government propaganda department. They had pushed Yang to remarry all along. Now, lifting their glasses, they toasted the newlyweds---and urged them to start building a family.”

Having Children After the Sichuan Earthquake

“In the aftermath of the quake,” Larmer wrote, “the Chinese government issued an unusual collective exemption to its one-child policy for the estimated 8,000 families who lost their only children. A new re-reproduction service offered these families free consultations, fertility treatment and surgery to reverse vasectomies and tubal ligations. In Beichuan, 802 families registered for official permission to have another child in the first seven months. By the end of last year, some 18 months after the quake, China’s family-planning commission reported that 1,662 babies were born to women eligible for these services---and more than 1,100 women were pregnant. This year, the numbers are expected to be even higher.” [Source: Brook Larmer, New York Times, May 3, 2010]

“Not everybody has been so fortunate. Back in Piankou, Yang’s old friend Lu Shihua struggled to move forward. Lu’s first wife died in childbirth 16 years ago; his only daughter died in the collapse of the Beichuan Middle School. Lu remarried soon after the earthquake, and at 41 he was gripped by the need to have another child. At a local restaurant, he ordered beers and baijiu, the traditional rice liquor, but then declined to drink. Leaning over, he whispered, Drinking is supposed to hurt my potency. For more than a year, Lu and his new wife had been trying to conceive. The doctor says there’s no physical problem, Lu told me at the time, so it’s probably just stress. Despite his frustration, Lu showed no trace of envy when he talked about Yang. Now that Yang is forming a new family, Lu said, he sees that there’s hope again. Months later, Lu’s wife would get pregnant, too.” [Ibid]

“When Yang and Xue reached the family-planning clinic in Mianyang, they presented the green booklet---which guarantees free service to quake survivors---and Xue disappeared into the obstetrician’s checkup room. Tucking his wife’s purse under his arm, Yang paced the hallway outside, underneath a poster that showed the proper way for workers to applaud at official functions. It wasn’t long before a white-gloved doctor waved him into the room. Minutes later, Yang and Xue emerged together, smiles spreading across their faces. In her hand, Xue clutched the image from the ultrasound, its smudgy white blur confirming the reality---and the good health---of their child. Everything is O.K., Yang said. It’s good to know everything is going to be O.K.” [Ibid]

Sichuan Earthquake Matchmaking Service

Brook Larmer wrote in the New York Times. “Two bulging ledgers sit on the matchmaker’s wooden table---one for men, theother for women. Inside the books, row after row of names are recorded in the precise handwriting of Deng Qunhua, a 42-year-old former seamstress who started her matchmaking service after losing her home and business in the earthquake. Each name on Deng’s list is followed by the client’s age (ranging from 22 to 78), along with height, education, employment and desired traits in a partner. But there is another more pertinent detail---a strangely formal two-character phrase---that appears next to a disproportionate number of names:, sang’ou, meaning bereaved of one’s spouse. These are the earthquake widows and widowers, Deng says, tracing a finger across the page. Most of them don’t ask for much---just a chance to get back part of what they have lost.” [Source: Brook Larmer, New York Times, May 3, 2010]

“Tapping into this new market of lonely hearts came naturally to Deng. Suddenly single again herself, after divorcing her husband in the post-quake trauma, the gregarious Beichuan native began commiserating with the lovelorn---and collecting names. Women join her list free, while men pay 200 yuan (about $30) for an unlimited number of introductions until they find a suitable match. Deng runs her business off a tabletop in Anchang, 10 miles south of Beichuan. But there are other matchmakers in town; even the local government has a service. So Deng travels into the mountains, plastering photocopied lists on the rocks, poles and village walls along the way.” [Ibid]

“So far Deng has brokered more than a hundred matches involving earthquake widows and widowers. Those are the cases, she says, that make her feel less like a businesswoman and more like a social worker. The earthquake survivors often feel that it may be too soon to look for a new spouse, Deng says. But when they see other people with a warm family home, they want that for themselves.” [Ibid]

“Finding such a refuge, however, is no simple task. Grief and trauma still consume many earthquake survivors. New companions must also deal with the remnants of their partners’ former lives: debts, disputed property, in-laws and parents and, perhaps most important, children. On Deng’s list, the most desired trait in a partner, repeated on almost every entry, is not money, looks, character or education; it is simply no burdens. Those saddled with the heaviest burdens---especially middle-aged women with children---move slowly off the list, while the young and the elderly tend to have more luck. Even so, some of these hastily arranged earthquake marriages have already fallen apart. Deng recalls one that ended in divorce after just 12 days---a record, she says.” [Ibid]

Image Sources: China-quake.com, Xinhua

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated April 2011


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